By Elaine Lies
TOYOTA, Japan (Reuters) - The first time Japan's Mao Asada set foot on a skating rink nearly two decades ago she wore a helmet and protective pads on her knees and elbows, wanting only to follow her big sister.
Now she stands as a prime contender for gold at the Sochi Games, where she will once again lock horns with long-standing rival and reigning Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yuna of South Korea.
Yet as recently as 2012 Asada was thinking about quitting.
Her mother's death the year before, coupled with several uneven seasons of changing her skating style from the bottom up in the wake of losing gold to Kim at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, had sent her into a slump.
"If possible, I wouldn't have wanted to have these tough experiences," the soft-spoken 23-year-old told Reuters in an interview at her home rink just outside the central Japanese city of Nagoya.
"Over the last three years I've been through a lot of pain and worry. But it's because of that pain that I've gotten to where I am now.
"If I hadn't gone through these tough times, I don't think I'd have come as far as I have, to being in my current condition."
Asada, who has said this will likely be her last competitive season, racked up wins in both of her Grand Prix events this year, Skate America and the NHK Trophy, despite some trouble with the complicated triple Axel, a jump with 3.5 rotations.
At the NHK Trophy she landed five triple jumps for a personal best, her score causing her mouth to drop briefly open in pleased surprise.
"After Vancouver I started all over again, basically re-doing everything from the fundamentals. Now I feel as if I've really made this my own," said Asada, the only woman to have landed three triple Axel jumps in competition.
"Right now my goal is to make sure I have the physical strength to skate well until the very end, to be able to skate my programs in a way that satisfies me."
BACK TO BASICS
An afternoon practice at Chukyo University, where she is a student and trains, begins with some jogging on the campus near maples aflame with autumn colors.
A slight 163 cm (5ft 4in), she skates for four hours a day, six days a week, starting each practice with a slow circuit of the rink to get a sense of the ice.
During the session, which she shared with fellow elite skater Takahiko Kozuka, she landed all her jumps cleanly enough to earn applause from coach Kumiko Sato, who watched from the side of the rink and occasionally pantomimed moves.
"When I went back to basics, I couldn't really square what my coach was telling me with what I knew. I didn't understand it, and when I did, I couldn't follow it," Asada said.
"It's all an issue of sense, of feeling. Basically it was just a matter of practicing every day until I got it."
Asada was in the midst of this re-learning period in December 2011 when the news came that her 48-year-old mother Kyoko was in critical condition from liver disease.
She pulled out of a competition in Canada to fly home, but before she could reach Japan her mother passed away.
This helped send her into a slump that led her to go as far as telling her coach and her sister Mai, two years older and a skater herself, that she might be thinking of quitting.
But the lively music her choreographer played during a visit piqued her interest, and in the process of working out a routine for exhibitions she gradually began to enjoy skating again.
Deciding that this year will mark the end of competitions helped too.
"Because I know that there's only a year left, I can really pour all my energy into competing," said Asada.
"I feel (my mother's) presence every day, so I'm able to continue on as before."
Though she needs to get past the Olympics before deciding what comes next, ice shows are a top possibility. First of all, though, she'd like to travel, preferably to an island like Bali "where you can really take it easy."
Asada downplayed her impending rematch with Kim, who is just 20 days older, saying that having her as a rival from their earliest skating days was a motivating force.
"There have been some very tough times, but if she wasn't there I wouldn't have made the progress I have," she said.
"In Vancouver, I had the gold medal as my goal. I'd worked for it since I was a child, and afterwards I really regretted my mistakes," she added.
"In Sochi, I'd like to erase those memories by doing everything perfectly. That's what I've been working for these last three years."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)